Silence Says a Lot: An Open Letter to Google About Marijuana Legalization

Dear Google/YouTube:

In more than twenty years with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), where I retired as deputy chief of police, I saw a lot of puzzling behavior at close range. This week I saw some odd behavior from Google, YouTube and President Obama.

It started when I submitted, via YouTube, a question for the "Your Interview with the President" session, an online chat hosted on Google+. My question asked why the President has not done more to end our disastrous drug war at a time when polls show that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. The decades I spent enforcing our drug laws with the LAPD convinced me that the war on drugs is worse than unwinnable. It is a boon to organized crime and a worthless drain on limited law enforcement resources, not to mention the fact that it saddles millions of Americans with criminal records that can follow them for the rest of their lives.

In retirement, I have spent that last few years working with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group that represents police, prosecutors, judges, DEA agents, and others who are working to replace drug prohibition with a system of sensible regulation and control. LEAP and many other groups sprang into action when the call went out for people to submit questions for the president via YouTube. Eighteen of the 20 top vote-getting questions were on drug policy; mine was the highest-ranked video question on the entire site and the second-highest vote-getter overall, trailing only a text question about online copyright infringement.

Along with many other people, I looked forward to hearing what the president would say. But, as it turned out, Google didn't present the president with my question. And your host, Steve Grove, didn't say one word during the entire interview about any of the other popular marijuana and drug policy questions.

Instead, you decided to spend several minutes allowing participants to ask the president of the United States to weigh in on truly important issues like... late-night snacking, dancing, celebrating wedding anniversaries and playing tennis.

This has provoked a lot of anger from drug policy reform advocates who feel disrespected by the complete lack of attention our supporters' efforts received. Some people solely blame Google and YouTube, because you stated on the event's web site that you, and not the White House, would decide which questions would be used.

That may well be true, but to be fair, President Obama cannot completely escape blame. Who believes that the president would be unable to prevail -- even over mighty Google -- if he really wanted to answer a question? He also could have acknowledged the enormous number of votes for questions about drug policy before answering one of the "approved" questions.

And let's remember that this isn't the first time the president has pushed aside popular drug policy questions during an online forum. Back in March, 2009, after drug policy questions were voted to the top for an online town hall meeting, the president laughingly dismissed the questions, saying "I don't know what this says about the online audience." As if everyone who is concerned about the expensive and violent failure of our drug policies is sitting in front of their computer getting stoned. (Remember me? You know, the cop who spent his career enforcing the drug laws and then got more votes than any other video on his marijuana legalization question. Nope, I'm not a stoner.)

While anger over the continued snubbing is justified, I actually think the president's and Google's disregard for the popular drug questions has a more hopeful meaning. The non-response can be read as acknowledgment of the increasing strength of the movement to end drug prohibition and of the intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy of the status quo on drugs.

Not that long ago, elected officials could score easy points with voters by talking "tough" on drug policy, including marijuana. No more. Today, trying to out-prohibition one another, especially when it comes to marijuana, is a no-win issue for both parties. Voters favor marijuana legalization 50%-45%, according to Gallup. And other polls show that three out of four Americans think the overall war on drugs is a failure. In California, where I live, a poll commissioned by the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative campaign found this week that fully 80% of voters agree with the statement, "State and federal drug laws are outdated and have failed." For President Obama, an explicit endorsement of the drug war would alienate people across the political spectrum and would force him to defend an indefensible failure.

And surely you folks at Google, who have an obvious interest in keeping the president comfortable and open to participating in future Google+ "Hangouts," wouldn't want to force the president to embarrass himself by stating on the record why he disagrees with the majority of Americans who think the drug war is a failure and now support ending marijuana prohibition.

Even granting this or some other political rationale, completely ignoring our valid questions is deeply disrespectful, and not just to the people who believed that their online votes on questions meant something. It ignores the nearly 50,000 deaths since 2006 in Mexico that are a direct result of drug prohibition. It ignores hundreds of thousands of people languishing in American jails for non-violent drug offenses. It ignores the billions of dollars we throw away every year on marijuana prohibition.

This wasn't the first time President Obama has dismissed questions about drug policy, and it might not be the last, because LEAP and our many allies are not going away. Even though Google chose not to get President Obama on record about this important issue this time, let's hope that he can somehow begin to understand that millions of Americans are tired of seeing their tax dollars funding criminal gangs. They are tired of decades of failure and dreadful collateral damage that the drug war has produced.

And, we're just tired of being ignored. During the inevitable next online town hall that Google hosts with the president, please do a better job of making people feel like their votes are being counted and their voices are being heard.


Stephen Downing

Deputy Chief of Police, Los Angeles Police Department (Ret.)

Board Member, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition